DURHAM, New Hampshire — Staffers and surrogates from rival campaigns across the state aren’t happy about it, but they agree: The New Hampshire primary is Sen. Bernie Sanders’s race to lose.
Again and again in interviews in the final weeks of campaigning here, political insiders stumping for Sen. Elizabeth Warren, former Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and former Vice President Joe Biden told me they were prepared for a Sanders victory. Well before voting even starts, some fretted about how their candidate had campaigned here.
New Hampshire state Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, a prominent backer of the former vice president, told Vox he thought Biden needed to put more work into New Hampshire.
“He’s great when he’s out there with the people; I don’t think he’s done enough of that,” D’Allesandro said. “That’s the most effective thing you can do in this business. People want that … I wish Joe had done more of that. When he does do that, he’s exemplary and does a terrific job.”
“I think it’s still very fluid, but Bernie’s solid,” D’Allesandro added.
Last summer, Sanders’s New Hampshire campaign had hit a slump. His allies here were worried he was being out-organized by fellow progressive Warren, who was scooping up some of his 2016 backers. Eight months later, Sanders’s campaign is poised to take his “political revolution” to victory.
Sanders got a rock star’s welcome when more than 7,500 people packed into the University of New Hampshire’s hockey arena to hear him and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) speak on Monday night. The Strokes played a concert after, with a stencil of Sanders’s head outlined on their bass drum. Meanwhile, staff and volunteers have knocked more than 475,000 doors across the state, a figure that doesn’t take the final weekend of canvassing into account.
RealClearPolitics’ polling average indicates Sanders has a 7-point lead over Buttigieg, his closest competitor.
Meanwhile, a strong centrist candidate hasn’t yet emerged from the pack. I’ve spent time in enthusiastic Biden, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar crowds but came across indecision and ambivalence, with voters still making up their minds in the eleventh hour.
“I’m circling in on Amy,” said Exeter voter Meg Foley as she craned her neck to try to see Klobuchar speak at a several-hundred-person crowd at the Exeter town hall Monday, the day before the primary. Foley has been undecided for months, but she said things came into sharper focus for her watching the presidential debate last week. “Friday night made me ask myself, why not Amy instead of Pete? ... She has been able to win over people who might be Trump voters; I’m not sure that electorate will be won over by Pete.”
The race for New Hampshire started about a year ago when candidates began wooing voters. Now, the winner will leave with momentum as the primary season sprints to Super Tuesday in just two weeks.
As voters head to the polls and the returns trickle in, here’s what I’ve learned on the ground that explains how election night could unfold.
Iowa spooked Biden voters in New Hampshire
Obama’s former vice president is the Democratic Party’s closest thing to an establishment pick. Buoyed by support from black voters in Southern states, Biden has been topping national polls for months. But he underperformed significantly with a fourth-place finish in Iowa and didn’t exactly project confidence coming into New Hampshire.
“I took a hit in Iowa, and I’ll probably take a hit here,” he bluntly admitted during last week’s debate.
Heavily white New Hampshire was never going to be Biden’s strongest state; a good chunk of his support comes from nonwhite voters. But his polling here cratered from a close second behind Sanders in late January to fourth place (where he’s tied with Warren and Klobuchar in polling averages).
Sure, Biden’s not a neighboring-state senator like Sanders and Warren, but he’s the former vice president, and a beloved one at that.
Biden’s campaigning schedule this week has been relatively light compared to those of Buttigieg and Klobuchar, who have had to work harder to boost their name recognition among New Hampshire voters. In the past three days, Biden has had two scheduled events per day (not including unscheduled stops); Klobuchar and Buttigieg have had double that. And voters in New Hampshire appreciate candidates who work hard.
“I’m looking for a candidate to ask me for my vote,” said Stoddard voter Robert Lucas, who said he was leaning toward Bernie but also considering Buttigieg.
When Biden spends time on the trail, his skill set with voters is evident at his events, where he stays to shake hands and talk to anyone who wants to. He has the interpersonal charisma only the most talented politicians have. Rochester voter and Vietnam veteran James Graham experienced that firsthand at a recent Biden town hall in Somersworth.
“I had this little interaction with the vice president,” Graham told me after. “I lost someone in Vietnam close to me. I got emotional and he hugged me. Sometimes the communication is not verbal.”
Graham walked into that event undecided between Biden, Warren, and Klobuchar. He walked out a Biden supporter.
As much as Biden’s campaign is projecting strength in Nevada and South Carolina even if he loses New Hampshire and Iowa, those contests are not happening in a vacuum. If Biden performs badly here on the heels of his Iowa “gut punch,” he could be staring down vanishing leads in Nevada, South Carolina, and Super Tuesday states.
Klobuchar and Buttigieg are fighting for Biden’s voters
As Biden slumps in New Hampshire, there are two moderate candidates hoping to take his place: Buttigieg and Klobuchar. Klobuchar is surging late in New Hampshire polls coming off a strong debate performance Friday, but the self-described moderate isn’t pulling from Sanders — she is drawing support away from Biden and Buttigieg.
“The ideal for Sanders is Sanders, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar in some order finishing one, two, three,” said University of New Hampshire political science professor Dante Scala. “Because then Biden stays in, Klobuchar stays in, and Buttigieg stays in. So now you have three candidates splitting the remainder of the non-Sanders vote. That’s perfect for Sanders.”
Even with Buttigieg riding a wave of momentum into New Hampshire after winning the most delegates in the Iowa caucuses, the latest public polls show that Klobuchar has blunted some of that after Friday’s New Hampshire debate. Buttigieg is still 10 points ahead of the Minnesota senator in the latest RealClearPolitics average, but the fact that she has seen a poll or two ahead of both Biden and Warren after one good debate performance is a startling burst of late momentum.
“I think she would have faded into the woodwork but for the debate,” said Scala. “That plus the fact Biden and Buttigieg were going at it, Sanders and Buttigieg were going at it. I think [Buttigieg’s] momentum ran out and I think college-educated moderates started looking again.”
Voters I spoke with on Monday said Klobuchar’s debate performance had piqued their interest in her. The debate “helped me narrow my choices,” said voter Scott Palmer of Nashua, who was trying to decide between Buttigieg and Klobuchar. Palmer, a moderate, said he could not vote for Biden.
“I have to go with youth,” Palmer said. “I think it’s time to get the older guys to move.” Palmer said his ideal scenario would be a Buttigieg-Klobuchar ticket; until then, he had to figure out which one to choose. “It’ll probably be a game-day decision.”
“I like [Klobuchar’s] demeanor; she seems level-headed,” said undecided voter Beaman Cole of Chester. “I think she’ll do well in New Hampshire. It would be good to keep one moderate moving along.”
Cole told me he still had no clue whom he’ll vote for on Tuesday and would also probably make up his mind in the voting booth. He said he also likes Sanders but added, “I might throw my hat in for Amy to balance the equation.”
A staffer for Buttigieg’s campaign in New Hampshire pushed back on the idea that the former mayor’s momentum had somehow diminished in a matter of days, citing the more than 5,000 people who attended his rallies in the state.
“We’ve knocked more doors than we have in previous weeks combined,” the staffer said. “We’ve built a strong organizing infrastructure.
“Do I think it’s a fluid race? Naturally,” they added.
Even with Klobuchar’s rise in New Hampshire, she’s not expected to win outright. If she does well here, she could further split the moderate vote — especially if Biden continues on to Nevada and South Carolina. In the end, Sanders could win with a large plurality that adds up to fewer votes than the moderates combined.
Sanders has unified the left
There is no such fracturing going on in the progressive wing of the party.
It wasn’t always this way. Over the summer, Sanders allies feared fellow progressive Sen. Elizabeth Warren was eating into his base. Now, the Vermont senator and progressive icon has put many of those fears to rest.
“Bernie has started something that has just caught fire,” Sanders’s New Hampshire state director Shannon Jackson told me in a recent interview. “In 2016, we really used the idea of political revolution. It’s snowballed even further.”
Establishment Democrats fear what having Sanders at the top of the ticket could do to down-ballot House and Senate races, a sentiment encapsulated by Bill Clinton ally James Carville.
“Sanders might get 280 electoral votes and win the presidency and maybe we keep the House. But there’s no chance in hell we’ll ever win the Senate with Sanders at the top of the party defining it for the public,” he recently told Vox.
But the big party names have held off on endorsing an alternative. Perhaps wary of backlash, former President Barack Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer have all stayed silent, as have 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton (though she has made her feelings about Sanders quite clear) and former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Still, some rank-and-file members of Congress are worried about Sanders’s rise.
“I hesitate to embrace the hypothetical because I don’t think that will happen, but a far-left or socialist candidate would be very threatening to members of Congress in the House or Senate that run in purple districts,” New Hampshire state Rep. Annie Kuster, a Buttigieg campaign co-chair, told Vox.
Rank-and-file Democrats aren’t coalescing around one candidate in particular. Some moderate House Democrats have endorsed Biden, some have backed Buttigieg, and yet others are supporting former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg. The billionaire has sat out the early-state contests in favor of deluging the airwaves with ads, hoping to suck up the moderate votes on Super Tuesday and states beyond.
Heading into New Hampshire’s primary, there’s no one moderate alternative to Bernie Sanders. If he wins, he could ride the momentum to wins in Nevada and even South Carolina, where he’s polling well with Latinos and has decent numbers among African American voters.
“If Sanders keeps winning, I could see Democrats in other states getting on board,” Scala said. “I feel like we were saying the same thing about Trump four years ago, there was a ceiling. The more you win, the better that argument becomes.”
Anything could happen in New Hampshire on Tuesday. But if moderates don’t unite around a candidate soon, they may have to learn to get on board with Bernie Sanders.